Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes. I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library. Continue reading →
I have often written here about aesthetics in science, and recently I’ve been exploring the same theme in theology. I’ve been reading Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, and trying to understand the contribution of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to this area. Balthasar is most famous for his work on aesthetics, and his multivolume work ‘The Glory of God’ has been hugely influential for both Catholic and Protestant theologians.
Aesthetics is a relatively new term, coined by German philosopher Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten in the 1750s. The goal was to develop a ‘science of cognition by the senses’, and beauty was the ‘perfection of sensitive cognition’. This way of thinking was adopted by other Enlightenment thinkers, with the result that aesthetics was separated from the fields of logic and ethics – something that Balthasar lamented. If beauty is no longer connected to usefulness or the life of the mind, it becomes only a product to be consumed. It’s time to redress the balance.
This post is the last in a series of three from an interview with Professor Jeff Hardin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love what he says here about aesthetics, transcendence, and the feeling of worship that a scientist can feel when they’re in the lab. (Part 1 here, part 2 here.)
To me, there’s something wrong with you as a Christian and a scientist if you don’t have a personal investment in the material that you’re trying to convey. I think my colleagues also share my sense of wonder about the world. Why exactly is that? Why do we have a sense of wonder? I could talk about Rudolph Otto’s ‘sense of the numinous’. But can we get to something a little bit more concrete than that? I think it’s, as Tom Wright says, an ‘echo of a voice’. Creation itself is calling out to us, saying something about its creator. That’s what motivates me as a scientist.
Science for a Christian, in some very real sense, is an exercise in art appreciation, and art historians must take the works of art on their own terms and try to understand them. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has written a good deal about aesthetics, and how it feeds into epistemology (how we know what we know), and even to metaphysics. I’m trying to explore that in my own thinking and reading. For me, being a Christian means that I need to take the contingent world as it is and understand it as well as I can, in the same way that someone who’s studying a work of art must take it as it is and try to understand it for its own sake, as well as he or she can.
I think the tendency at times in the States is to be suspicious of people of faith when they come to doing science. But I would argue that Christians ought to be better scientists because they have to take the world on its own terms. There’s the analogy of the ‘two books’ – which comes from Psalm 19 – the book of God’s works in the world and the book of God’s word, which for Christians is the Bible. We need to take each of those books incredibly seriously. The regularity of heavenly bodies is the subject of discussion in Psalm 19, but there are other Psalms that talk about biological process, including predator-prey relationships and everything else. It’s clear in these pieces of poetry that understanding those biological processes as well as you can is actually an exercise in giving glory to the one who stands behind them. To me that’s part and parcel of being a scientist.
Theoretical chemist Fritz Schaefer was quoted a number of years ago in an American news magazine as saying that when he discovers something for the first time he has a moment where he thinks, ‘Aha, that’s how God did it!’ That moment is very like when you go on a hike and there’s a special spot at the end with a beautiful view that not many people know about. The natural response is to want to share that with somebody. I think the same is true in science, and as a Christian I want to share that discovery with God himself. It becomes an act of worship for me.